You may have heard rumblings about an outbreak of flu and gastroenteritis in France. What’s happening, and should you and your family be concerned?

Is there a flu epidemic in France?

In December 2019 the French public health authority issued warning about the flu virus, saying that Occitanie, Provence-Alpes-Côtes d’Azur, Pays-de- la-Loire and the greater Paris Île-de-France region are in a “pre-epidemic” phase while the south west is suffering from a bout of stomach flu (also known as viral gastroenteritis or simply “gastro”). Hospitals in those four regions have seen high levels of flu-related hospital visits in recent weeks, with 160 patients being admitted to hospital wards in the week before Christmas.

What are the symptoms of flu?

Anyone who has been diagnosed with flu will tell you that it’s much more than a bad cold, but how can you tell the difference? The main difference between flu and a cough or cold is that flu sufferers typically experience a high fever throughout their illness, alongside the expected coughing, sneezing and tight chest. Flu will usually come on suddenly with any or all of the following symptoms:

  • Fevers
  • Chills
  • Aches
  • Fatigue/weakness
  • Sneezing
  • Chest tight
  • Coughing
  • Blocked nose
  • Sore throat
  • Headache

A good rule of thumb is that if you would feel well enough to pick up a €50 note off the floor you probably don’t have flu.

When should I go to the doctor or hospital with suspected flu?

If you aren’t sure whether you have flu or a cold you’re better off treating yourself at home. As both colds and flu are caused by a virus, they cannot be treated by antibiotics. In fact, the prevailing health advice is that you should only visit your doctor about a bout of flu if you meet one of these criteria:

  • You are pregnant
  • You are over 65
  • You are chronically ill
  • You have an immune system condition
  • Your child or baby may have flu
  • Your temperature is over 40°C/104°F
  • You’re experiencing unusual symptoms such as:
    • Breathing difficulties
    • Coughing up blood or foul-smelling phlegm
    • Difficulty maintaining consciousness
    • Diarrhoea

You should also keep track of how long your illness lasts and seek medial advice if you are very ill for more than three days or your condition rapidly deteriorates.

How can I treat flu at home?

The key to recovery is rest, plenty of fluids, good personal hygiene and staying in a cool environment in light layers to prevent fever spikes. Paracetamol can help ease some of the symptoms, but it will not cure your flu. If you are generally healthy it should pass in time, but if you suffer from a prolonged illness you should contact your doctor.

Other home remedies may make your illness easier to bear. Green tea, orange juice and ginger-lemon infusions are popular options for flu sufferers. Bland food like dry toast and crackers may also help if your stomach is unsettled.

How can I avoid getting or spreading flu?

Maintaining high levels of personal hygiene is crucial for limiting the spread of flu germs. Wash your hands well and often, dispose of used tissues safely and consider wearing a disposable face mask if you’re suffering from flu-like symptoms. Sneeze/cough into a tissue and then throw it away, or if this is not possible sneeze into your elbow rather than your hand. Carrying a hand sanitiser and using it regularly while you’re out and about will help, especially after touching money or using public facilities. If you believe you have flu you should stay home until your illness has passed.

Can I get a free flu jab in France?

The World Health Organisation sets out guidelines for who is eligible for free vaccines year on year. If you meet the criteria and you are a permanent resident in France you can get a free jab. You may be issued a voucher in advance which you can take to the pharmacy or seek a prescription from your doctor. The following are eligible:

  • People aged over 65
  • Adults over 18 years of age with chronic illnesses like respiratory or cardiovascular diseases
  • People considered obese
  • Pregnant women aged 18 or older
  • Close family and friends of some infants under 6 months of age with high risk factors.

If you don’t fall into one of these groups, never fear! You can get a prescription from your doctor and book a jab at your local pharmacy for a small fee. The injection itself costs €6 and an appointment fee will also be payable. If you ask us, it’s a small price to pay to avoid such a nasty illness.

Bear in mind, though, that the vaccine takes 15 days to become effective after it is administered, so you should get one as soon as you can. If it is too late in the flu season you will not be able to get one.

Do I need health insurance for flu treatment in France?

If you are a permanent expat in France and are registered for a carte vitale you can access your doctor as normal. The standard rate for a GP visit is €25 and you will later be reimbursed around 70% of that by the CPAM. If you have private health insurance you may have access to faster treatment, and it may be fully covered depending on your policy.

If you are a Brit travelling in France your EHIC card should cover you for some or all medical expenses, so make sure you have yours with you. If you are from outside the EU or don’t have an EHIC your travel insurance may cover the cost, failing that you will have to pay privately. Costs will vary depending on where you are and what treatment is required.

Bear in mind that if you are typically in good health you shouldn’t need to visit a doctor or hospital for flu treatment, but it’s wise to ensure that you have adequate cover.

How worried should I be about flu in France?

If you are usually in good health and practice good personal hygiene the worst-case scenario is typically a few days on bed rest feeling fairly rotten. However, if you are in one of the vulnerable groups you should be extra vigilant. The good news is that the flu season is fairly short. Keep an eye on the public health announcements and be sensible. If you have any concerns contact your healthcare provider.

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